Sir Patrick Spens, Op.23
Claire Rutter (soprano)
James Gilchrist (tenor)
Roderick Williams (baritone)
The Bach Choir
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Recorded 16 & 17 September 2006 in the Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset
Reviewed by: David Wordsworth
Reviewed: July 2007
CD No: NAXOS 8.570352
Duration: 65 minutes
The years since the death of Herbert Howells in 1983 have brought about something of a reassessment of his stature, at least as far as recordings are concerned. Always primarily known for his music for the church, the last twenty years have given us the chance to hear different sides to this self-critical and still under-estimated figure with several notable recordings of chamber and orchestral music. Sadly, as with so much English music of this period, Howells’s doesn’t seem to have entered the regular concert repertoire, but at least we now have the chance to hear pieces that twenty years ago most of us thought had been condemned to permanent oblivion.
I’d like to say that “Sir Patrick Spens” (recorded here for the first time), the epic Scottish choral ballad that Howells’ wrote in 1917 would be the exception to the rule, but I fear this isn’t the case. Written when the composer was 25, it was his first attempt at a big choral-orchestral work and although it has several impressive moments and occasional unmistakable Howellsian harmonic freshness it’s enforced ‘rollicking Englishness’ sounds somewhat dated and, although I listened without a score, is unnecessarily difficult for the average choral society. Perhaps this might partly account for the only known performance being in Newcastle, conducted by W. G. Whittaker in 1930. The Bach Choir, with James Gilchrist and Roderick Williams in their brief solo roles, give the piece their all – even to the point of singing the text with a convincing Scottish lilt and David Hill does a fine job in sorting out the thick, over-scored textures. But with the exception of the poignant laments of the chorus at the end of the work as Sir Patrick’s ship is overcome by the waves, very little stays in the memory.
“Hymnus paradisi”, on the other hand, although far from being an easy ride for the performers, surely has claim to be a masterpiece; despite the paucity of live performances it is still Howells’s best-known work. The circumstances of its composition, the death from polio of Howells’s only son is also familiar. It was a tragedy from which Howells never recovered and the journey from tortured grief to final blazing light, and at least reconciliation if not final peace, is as effecting in this work as anything else by any composer, British or otherwise. Howells places great demands on his performers – the dense polyphony in the choral and orchestral writing can be taxing on even the best of efforts; indeed even the large forces of the Bach Choir sound occasionally strained on this recording. The balance and recording level can sometimes sound a little ‘fuzzy’ so that at the biggest climaxes (the end of the ‘Sanctus’ for example) the effect seems a little less than it should be. Claire Rutter and James Gilchrist float their solo lines effectively but, again, I miss the overwhelming white-hot intensity the piece really needs.
Perhaps not a first choice for the major work on the disc but certainly recommended to those coming across this wonderful piece for the first time – and, of course, at Naxos’s budget price.